The following quote by Luigi Ficacci summarises both the importance of Piranesi and the problematical issues surrounding his legacy. “Indeed, the romantic vision of Roman antiquities and Rome itself was derived from the visual filter created by Piranesi. His conception of antiquity was that of a current problem affecting our present existence. Since Piranesi’s time, this idea has been posited more or less consciously against the antithetical attitude that perceived antiquity as irremediably distant, and indeed lost in the past, and that manipulated and celebrated it as a mere facade. Although the first of these tendencies has long been rooted in the model delineated by Piranesi’s vision, it is now fading away under pressure from a modern reality inspired by vastly different cultural models that have liberated the real Rome from the burden of this crushing tradition.” (Luigi Ficacci 2000: 13)

Winckelmann’s legacy was not visual but theoretical and his polemic, unlike Piranesi’s, was initially shaped without any direct acquaintance with either Rome or Greece. Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek works in Painting and Sculpture (1755) was largely based upon artefacts in Dresden collections. The publication encourages artists to copy ancient Greek works of art, on the basis that the Greeks exemplified the union of beauty and nature. Winckelmann vociferously argued that studies of this kind, provided an antidote to the prevailing romanticism associated with the Rococo style. It is now clear that Winckelmann’s concept of ideal beauty also resided in his own homoerotic desires, which he channelled through Apollonian and Adonic male nudes (fig.1). (see Alex Potts, 1994, Flesh and the Ideal – Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History. And Linda Dowling, 1996, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford.) This subtext did not prevent, and may even have encouraged, the drawing of Roman “copies” of male Greek sculptures, which became the obligatory academic method for learning the aesthetic principles associated with ideal beauty. His theories and the educational practices that they underpinned also provoked criticism. Wilhelm Heinse (1746-1803) succinctly summed up the counter argument, “Winckelmann and that sterile crowd speak like men possessed, like madmen, when they say that one ought to study and imitate only the Ancients. Actually, what they believe to be their chief goal is merely an easy trick for finding a few natural beauties. They paint and draw only in the midst of plaster phantoms – what nonsense! As if the beauties which are in the Apollo, the Laocoon, and the Medici Venus were not around us all the time.” (Heinse, W. Sämmtliche Werke, Leipzig, Insel, 1903-25, Eng. trans. taken from Eitner, L., Neoclassicism and Romanticism 1750-1850, V1, London 1971: 79-80) (figs.2&3).

Winckelmann’s various references to the wall-paintings from Herculaneum and Pompeii, suggests that his interest in them was mainly governed by his desire to connect them with earlier Greek painting. Hence he only singled out for praise paintings that depicted Greek mythological scenes, such as the Chiron Teaching Achilles to Play the Lyre found in 1740 in the Basilica in Herculaneum (fig.4). The rest he considered to be, according Christopher Parslow’s succinct summary, “… mediocre works of art, valuable primarily for the light they shed on ancient dress, domestic life, and architecture.” (Parslow: 218) On the other hand when four framed fresco paintings were discovered leaning against a wall Winckelmann became very excited. “Winckelman’s excitement was due to his hypothesis that these paintings were by Greek masters and had been transported here for incorporation into new wall decorations in the manner described by Vitruvius (Vit.7.3.10). In fact, however, they were panels salvaged from walls that had been damaged in the earthquake of A.D. 62, as Winckelmann later acknowledged.” (Parslow: 221)


Tourism, Romanticism and Pompeii
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1 Apollo Belvedere, Leochares, c.350 BC., Vatican City Museum

2 Laocoon and His Sons, Ist Century BC., Vatican City Museum

3 Medici Venus in The Tribune of the Uffizi by John Zoffany, 1772, The Royal Collection

4 Chiron Teaching Achilles to Play the Lyre, Basilica Herculaneum, c.40 BC

Chiron Teaching Achilles to Play the Lyre Wall painting from the Basilica of Herculaneum c. 40 BC 4>